Wind power has all the ingredients of a good brain-buster. The energy that windmills produce helps to preserve the environment, but the giant wind generators themselves have to be added to the environment.
Wind power is making us redefine what we consider pollution. Windmills may not billow black smoke that require scrubbing or leak hazardous radiation, but they make a lot of noise and can change a scenic horizon or ridgeline into a jumble of tinker-toy technology. Like dams in rivers, they interrupt the free flow of natural settings.
This not to say that non-wind power plants don't do this or worse, but so far, we’ve been able to hide some of the biggest coal-fired plants around the West so that most of us don’t notice them. Wind power is less easy to hide. You need several hundred windmills to equal the power output of a small coal or natural-gas fired power plant, and often the best places to catch this wind are some of the most scenic.
But wind power is a good thing, right?
I love moral ambiguity. It makes for great literature and films. It causes people to talk, debate, argue and eventually shoot things at each other. Wind power is so morally ambiguous that I predict it will make even rational peoples' heads explode.
It wasn't long ago that protesters in Western towns were chaining themselves to trees to block the installation of cellphone towers. For the most part, it wasn't because they thought people shouldn’t use cellphones; they just deemed the towers a visual blight. We love our mountains here in the West. Except for the giant school letters and ski lift towers that decorate them, we revere our mountain ranges and uncluttered vistas as much as Floridians do their beaches. Just think what protests would erupt over any plan to line a Rocky Mountain ridge with 2,000 windmills.
Wind power may be to energy conservation what homeless people are to social responsibility. We want homeless shelters, but we don't want homeless people over for dinner every night. Utah's liberal community radio station and the Moab Folk Festival claim to be powered by wind, yet I don't see any 100-foot towers anywhere near either of those enterprises. What’s wrong with putting these pesky turbines "somewhere out there" in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado or Nevada? One answer is that this is the same thinking led Easterners to test nuclear bombs and store nerve gas and radioactive waste in the rural West.
Wind farming can sound downright bucolic, but it's also possible that windfarms will come to resemble company mining towns. “Wind ghettos” will be built in low-income areas desperate for jobs and income, and residents will have to live an industrial nightmare so urbanites can tune into local public radio powered by an environmentally friendly source that can be bragged about.
It's also quite possible that the perceived panacea of environmentally friendly energy will distract people from actually reducing energy use. I'm sure you all know a Toyota Prius owner who acts as if driving a hybrid car isn't really driving; it's more like planting a tree every time the ignition key is turned. Sweet perfumes come out of the exhaust pipe and normal cars pull off to the side of the road and weep in shame as the hybrid car pulls up to the farmers’ market. Similarly, powering your espresso machine with wind power may only open up new rationalizations for not cutting back on energy. Really, if we would all just eat coffee right out of the bag in its natural crunchy state, think of the amount of energy -- not to mention water -- we could save!
The downsides -- real or imagined -- may make our heads throb a little, but isn’t wind power a natural substitute for some of the fossil fuels we’re exploiting at a rapid rate? We are all people of the wind. Unless you can trace your ancestry to indigenous people who walked over to North America from Siberia back when there was an exposed land bridge, or who wandered up through South America and Mexico, you are here only because wind blew your ancestors' ships over here. Those "amber waves of grain" in America the Beautiful are windblown.
We have been given a gift: Wind power can make us some energy. Wind power can blow our minds.
Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Logan, Utah.